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This is one of the more interesting and personal articles I've read…

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This is one of the more interesting and personal articles I've read recently. I've been struggling a bit with my own tendency to want to record and save anything and everything digital (in meatspace I'm actually fairly good at getting rid of excess junk, thankfully). I realized there was a problem when I found it was faster to do a search on google for a certain website instead of trawling through my bookmarks, or faster to download an old mp3 off soulseek than to search for it in my huge stack of archived mp3 cds that I rarely even listen to. Not to mention the compulsion to take far more digital photos than I would ever want or need. I'm not sure why I've felt the need to save every beautiful or thought provoking image I come across online, although out of any of these collected bits of data I enjoy scrolling through these the most. Awhile ago I decided to not bookmark anything I couldn't find again with an easy google search. I haven't kept true to that decision and once again face hundreds of them to sort or delete. Perhaps I should just delete them all and start on a clean slate, but that seems to go against my nature and I'll always wonder if I deleted something I'll regret. Ah to be minimalist.

(It's probably not a good sign that I just bookmarked the site for the "Minimalist Web Movement").


Memory Overload

As hard drives get bigger and cheaper, we're storing way too much.

By Jim Lewis


There's a famous allegory about a map of the world that grows in detail until every point in reality has its counterpoint on paper; the twist being that such a map is at once ideally accurate and entirely useless, since it's the same size as the thing it's meant to represent.

Something very similar is happening in the world around us, though the phenomenon captured is time, not space, and the medium is digital memory rather than paper and ink. Consider, for example, a paradox well-known to new parents: Mom and Dad buy a video camera expecting to document Junior's first years, only to find that, while they do indeed shoot anything and everything, they never get around to watching all they recorded. There aren't enough hours in the day for such marathons of consumption.

There was an era when a mechanically captured memory was a rare and precious thing: a formal photo, a faint recording of someone's voice. Nowadays it's all you can do to avoid leaving a recording behind as you go about your day - especially as hard drives get bigger and devices more ubiquitous. The average American is caught at least a dozen times a day on surveillance cameras: at bank machines, above intersections, outside tourist spots, on the dashboards of police cruisers. Businesses log every keystroke made by their employees; help centers store audio of telephone calls, as does 911. DigiMine CEO Usama Fayyad, a computer scientist turned data mining entrepreneur, calculates that the data storage curve is now rocketing upward at a rate of 800 percent per year. "It makes Moore's law look like a flat line," he says. "Companies are collecting so much data they're overwhelmed."

You may know the feeling. Since Kodachrome made way for JPEG, pictures accumulate on hard drives like wet leaves in a gutter. If you wanted to, you could make a fair-quality audio recording of everything that reaches your ears for a month and store it on an iPod that fits in your pocket. Though, of course, you'd need another month to listen to it. Whence the rub: If life gets recorded in real time, it hardly counts as a record at all. It certainly has less impact, and in extreme examples it's self-defeating.

Mechanical memory - to its unexpected advantage - degrades. Colors fade, negatives crack, manuscripts grow brittle, grooves get scratched. What emerges from these depredations is a crucial sense of both the pastness of the past, and its presence. Time takes just enough out of acetate and celluloid to remind us of the distance between now and then, while leaving just enough to remind us of the nearness of our own history.

But digital memory - ubiquitous, fathomless, and literally gratuitous - serves neither idea: The past is always here and always perfect; everything can be represented, no moment need be lost. Moreover, all of it is as good as new, and every copy identical to the original. What's missing is a cadence, a play of values, or a respect for the way loss informs our experience of time. Like the map that's as big as the world itself, it's useless precisely because it's too good.

In a way, we've engineered ourselves back in time. When it was rare and expensive, mechanical memory swamped the real thing; what you most vividly recalled from your vacation wasn't necessarily the most striking part, but what you had the best picture of. Recollecting my own early childhood, I can't tell the experiences from the photographs of them that I've seen since. As recently as 160 years ago, such a phenomenon would have been inconceivable - there simply was no such thing as a photo, film, an audiotape. Now there's a surfeit, to the same effect. Moments are no longer fixed as monuments around which memories accrue - the picture in your wallet, your favorite uncle's Super 8 movies, a single song on a 45. There's just a constant downpour of experience, some of it real and some of it representation, a fluid and uninflected cataract.

Whether this is a boon or a disaster I can't say. Such subtle patterns in the history of human experience tend to escape that kind of judgment. But the result is a telling contradiction: Our culture has become engulfed in its past and can make no use of it at all.
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On March 17th, 2003 06:02 pm (UTC), interimlover commented:
i really liked that article as well ;)

info overload!
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On March 17th, 2003 06:44 pm (UTC), heuteistmeintag commented:
i'm having that exact same dilemma.

my 60GB backup drive is completely filled, and i've been looking for a 120 or 200GB external drive. then it occured to me that of those 60GBs of stuff, how much do i really need? those bookmarks, i average one new bookmark a day, but i find that i never revisit the site but i can't bring myself to delete them for fear of the eventual "what if?"

in the end, i conclude that disposable income is my only solution. no more room? buy more HD

ok, enough of me. back to watch the new sophie ellis-bextor dvd i got from amazon.co.uk today. i love you sophie
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On March 17th, 2003 07:46 pm (UTC), scarfboy commented:
Interesting, yes, and it's a good point.

But I don't get what he's pleading for. For digital memory to be as bad as the analog stuff, to have it lose detail to match our brains (and not disprove the pleasant memories we've simplified it to)?
It occurs to me that this is one of those half-points that doesn't as much as spend a paragraph specifically on the real issue, and therefore none on the counter-arguments to it either. The issue, I feel, is rather something liek that humans are still too silly/stupid to use technology usefully (in ways they'ld themselves appreciate more, even) instead of in the simpler and extreme ways.

I suppose I just bought a 120GB drive. However, most of the reason the old 60 Gigger was getting full was music and video. I like having enough music that I don't know all of it; you know, the sort of thing that makes radio stations in teresting too. Video, well, movies are interesting, of course. In a way, they're engineered to to be watched again, or at least to pull from the dust and play like it was. For that, digital storage is nice. Doesn't have much more than analog, really, apart from the fact it's exactly the same video, not mostly the same. And yeah, I know I've got some things on my hard drive I'll probably never use. But the stuff I know I won't use is gone, it's just the stuff i'm not sure about what parts I'll use that are still there. Sure, a percentage ('cos that's how it works, really. Similar to the effect that no matter how big the drive, you always manage to fill it up) of my data will be crud, but it's not in my way - a gigabyte costs about a euro/usd these days, so as long as I can get to my useful data, I don't see the problem.
(One thing is true - I have way more bookmarks than I'll ever use again. But that's mainly because I never really use bookmarks in the first place, so they're not in my way. And my hundreds of bookmarks tahe *shock* 45KB, so space is the last thing I'm worried about there.)


Personally, I'ld say that if people at home are too stupid to use their technology - most of which is already limited enough to not do what the designers though of as 'stupid' - then that's their fault and problem. Well, that's the short version of the opinion, anyhow.
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On March 18th, 2003 03:13 am (UTC), esek3 commented:
"In a way, we've engineered ourselves back in time." - i like this one.
(nevermind, just saying hi)
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On March 18th, 2003 10:44 am (UTC), nomi replied:
hello. :)
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On March 19th, 2003 01:50 pm (UTC), celie commented:
I'v always enjoyed that map analogy.
I actually think about this alot; It stops me from doing many things.
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On March 28th, 2003 12:08 pm (UTC), gulch commented:
Heh, yes, this subject has been on my mind a lot lately - especially as I stare at the drawer full of mini-DVs of my growing children, and wonder not when I'll get around to watching them (I have managed to do snatches of that occasionally) but when I'll get time to edit the dead space out of them and put them on DVD - why? So that my time spent watching them will be more concentrated, worthwhile? Hmmm... does the time spent editing them justify the time saved not watching the boring bits? Does it help if I factor in my friends' and family's time, now I don't have to subject them to quite so much fast-forwarding to interesting bits? Ah well, I guess I should stop worrying about it, I've got a life to get on with :)

I read a fascinating book recently "The Internet Weather" by James Moore (I was reviewing it for a magazine - I posted an online copy of my review here) which touched on this subject - one of the thing that Moore mentions is that, although we are getting better at data-crunching using computers, the actually raw volume of data is increasing exponentially faster than our ability to process it, we are drowning in a sea of data.

Ah well. On the bright side, I realised about five years ago that I rarely got around to using my bookmarks before the page they pointed to had disappeared off the face of the web. And I also ended up filing my bookmarks in such an idiosyncratic collection of folders that I could never find one that I wanted a couple of weeks later anyway (I'm sad to say that the same is still true of the files on my hard drive). So I stopped bookmarking sites. Nowadays it's a feature that I only use when I'm on a page which I know I'm likely to want again later the same day. I've been using this PC for about 6 months now, and I still only have 7 sites bookmarked on it. If I want to keep something for ever, I may bookmark it on my Yahoo homepage, but I rarely even do that nowadays - I'm much better at Googling than at remembering where I left stuff.

I think my memory's changed with my increasing use of computers and other gadgets as well (or is it just age?) When I was young, I had the phone numbers of maybe 30 or 40 friends and relatives filed away inside my head. Now that they're all in my mobile phone (or perhaps not, as I lost it a couple of days ago) I often find myself forgetting my own home number, and absolutely cannot trust myself to get anyone else's number right.
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On July 11th, 2003 03:11 am (UTC), nomi replied:
I've been using this PC for about 6 months now, and I still only have 7 sites bookmarked on it.

guh, that's incredible.. I commend you. I probably bookmark 7 sites a day. I'm still struggling with that bad habit.

I'll read your review of "The Internet Weather", it sounds like a book that would interest me.

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